Sartre's Absolute Freedom in Being and Nothingness: The Problems Persist

Article excerpt

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre distinguishes between two types of freedom. One is the freedom "to obtain what one has wished," which is the "empirical and popular concept of 'freedom.'"1 The other is the freedom "by oneself to determine oneself to wish," which is the "philosophical concept of freedom . . . [that] means only the autonomy of choice" (483/563). The former can be termed "freedom to obtain" and the latter "freedom to choose." "Freedom to obtain" refers to our ability to act in certain ways in the practical world. "Freedom to choose" refers to the fundamental projects that we set for ourselves and, accordingly, the meanings we confer on the situations in which we find ourselves. Sartre is unequivocal that, for example, a person with no legs is not free to walk. Nevertheless, he is free to confer meanings on his situation in a variety of ways, according to his fundamental projects in life.

We are a choice, and for us, to be is to choose ourselves. Even this disability from which I suffer I have assumed by the very fact that I live; I surpass it toward my own projects, I make of it the necessary obstacle for my being, and I cannot be crippled without choosing myself as crippled. This means that I choose the way I constitute my disability (as "unbearable," "humiliating," "to be hidden," "to be revealed to all," "an object of pride," "the justification of my failures," etc.). (328/393)

The term "freedom to choose" could be confusing, since many of our choices lie within the sphere of "freedom to obtain." Sartre offers an example of a person who has a flat tire, understands that he will not arrive in time to close a deal with a prospective client, and, hence, chooses to sign a contract with a different client or even give up the entire endeavor (505/58687). But such a choice would fall in the sphere of what Sartre calls freedom to obtain, not freedom to choose, since it does not have to do with a sufficiently fundamental project in life and the basic meanings a person attributes to himself and his situations, but, rather, with instrumental decisions about specific courses of action. Freedom to choose, then, is a technical term relating to a certain set of general choices about one's basic projects.

Freedom to choose and freedom to obtain are interrelated, since the specific projects we undertake assign particular meanings to the situations in which we find ourselves, and it is only within these spheres of meaning that we obtain, or fail to obtain, certain specific ends. Sartre presents the example of a mountain (488-89/569). If I take on the project of being a mountain climber, the mountain acquires the meaning of obstacle or challenge. But if my project is that of a lawyer, real estate developer, or environmental activist (to add more options to Sartre's original example), the mountain has different meanings. Once projects are chosen and meanings conferred, we could find ourselves, in those spheres of meaning, succeeding or failing to obtain what we want. The mountain climber could, for example, fail to reach the mountain top; the real estate developer could fail to build hotels on the mountain; and the environmental activist might fail to preserve the natural habitat there. But the success or failure to obtain what they seek acquires its identity only because these individuals chose the projects of a mountain climber, real estate developer, or environmentalist.

Sartre uses this distinction to respond to anticipated criticism of one of his famous claims about freedom: that it is absolute. He writes, for example, "I am absolutely free and absolutely responsible for my situation" (509/59 1);2 "man cannot be sometimes slave and sometimes free; he is wholly and forever free or he is not free at all" (441/485); and "existence precedes and determines essence" (438/513). Likewise, he asserts that we are "totally free" (555/64 1 ) and that

there is no obstacle in the absolute sense, but the obstacle reveals its coefficient of adversity across freely invented and freely acquired techniques. …